EDMONTON -- Both public and senior high schools from the Fort McMurray public and Catholic school divisions will move online starting Monday due to increasing COVID-19 cases.

In a joint news release, both Fort McMurray Public School Division and Fort McMurray Catholic Schools requested permission from the Ministry of Education to move grade seven to 12 classes online due to increasing numbers of COVID-19 cases in the community, as well as staff and students in isolation.

The ministry approved the request Friday.

Classes will be online starting Monday until April 30.

Jennifer Turner, Fort McMurray public schools superintendent, said in a statement that moving online will help alleviate staffing challenges that both public and Catholic school districts are facing.

“A coordinated approach between both school divisions, for one cycle of isolation, is intended to serve as a necessary circuit breaker for the 10 schools across both divisions who have more than one case,” Turner said.

“We believe a shift to virtual learning for our grade 7-12 students will most likely give us enough substitute teachers to maintain safe staffing levels at our elementary schools.”

George McGuigan, Fort McMurray Catholic schools superintendent, said in a statement that while the districts want in-person learning for students, the move online will ensure safety.

“The overall COVID-19 numbers in Fort McMurray right now are very worrisome,” McGuigan said. “We need to bend this curve and we believe that moving grade 7-12 students in this area to virtual learning for two weeks will help.”

“It will also help limit some stress on many families because we know isolation is difficult,” McGuigan added. “There are 10 weeks left in our school year, we implore the entire region to work together to help get our students to the finish line,"

Officials with the two districts say that there have been over 600 new active cases of COVID-19 confirmed in Fort McMurray over the past two weeks.

“The government isn’t even taking the lead on managing these major outbreaks, leaving decisions about schools operations to boards,” said NDP Education Critic Sarah Hoffman in a statement.

“There are no additional supports coming from the UCP government to keep as many schools open as possible and nothing has been offered to support parents managing the chaos of having their kids learn from home yet again.”

The Regional Municipality of Wood Buffalo had 657 active cases as of Friday.

Absenteeism rates since the Easter break for the public school division have averaged around 47 per cent while the Catholic district is averaging 30 to 35 per cent, the release said. Those numbers include positive cases of COVID-19 and close contacts that must isolate.